Broadway fans love to whine about movie adaptations overtaking their beloved theaters. But can’t movie buffs also complain about their favorite films getting ruined by the stage? I will — because I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!
That’s the signature line from the most recent live mangling, “Network,” the new Broadway play based on writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet’s superb 1976 film. The story is about a 1970s news anchor named Howard Beale, who goes off the rails one night on air and says he’s going to kill himself on live TV.
It’s a personal — and moral — debacle, but a ratings bonanza. And instead of firing him, greedy execs give Howard his own show on which he sells charismatic, angry opinions. Sound familiar?
Critics today laud Chayefsky for correctly predicting the rise of outrage television, those red-faced talking heads lambasting the day’s events. But relevance is meaningless back-patting without a well-told story around it.
That’s the trouble with British playwright Lee Hall’s concentrated script and Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s flashy staging, which began at London’s National Theatre: They forget that “Network” is more than just a portentous, thinky prophecy, it’s a hot-blooded, swift-moving ensemble piece.
Underlining that fact, the straightforwardly directed film won three acting Oscars in 1976: Best Actor for Peter Finch as Beale, Best Actress for Faye Dunaway as Diana, the company climber, and Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight, a spurned wife called Louise.
Now, “Network” is the Howard Beale Show from start to finish, and feels holier-than-thou as a result. Tatiana Maslany plays Diana like a one-off Shonda Rhimes character, and Alyssa Bresnahan’s full-throated Louise is not at home in this IKEA-set production. Whereas Finch’s Beale was stoically crazy, but trustworthy, Bryan Cranston turns the character into a loud sidewalk bum. The actor is devoted, and extremely watchable, but too loony.
Over at the musical “King Kong,” it’s the producers who are loony.
“We did not go into this naively,” a production source recently told my colleague Michael Riedel after getting pummeled by negative reviews. “I don’t think we ever thought the critics would be on our side. But we’ve got a great title and the big guy delivers the goods.”
Unfortunately for the team that has supported this musical monkeypox, their giant puppet hasn’t delivered much of anything yet. The awful new musical, if you could call it that, was only about 77 percent sold last week. And while 25 puppeteers manipulate Kong’s muscles and limbs in a realistic manner, the ape is responsible for an infuriating moment.
The core idea of the “King Kong” films is that the giant ape is not just a lucrative attraction, but a living, breathing creature with a soul and an emotional life. But in British director Drew McOnie’s idiotic production, when King Kong dies after being shot at by laser-equipped helicopters, the audience applauds. The special effects! The spectacle! The monkey corpse! Imagine if Eponine keeled over in “Les Miserables” and the crowd squealed with delight. That scene is the bow atop the year’s biggest theatrical embarrassment.
Writer Jack Thorne also unwisely tosses some pseudo-feminism into this 1930s story by having the main human character, Ann Darrow, lack the ability to scream. Now, the damsel actress can only roar. Patrons should be roaring at the box office about this narrative cop-out.
Feminism also shows up in “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” a forgettable show that has a major advantage over “King Kong” and “Network”: The 1990 movie is neither a classic, nor critically acclaimed. But it is beloved by fans for Julia Roberts’ smiley performance as Vivian, a hooker with a heart of gold who is offered $3,000 by a rich guy to be his companion for a week. How empowering.
Well, that’s what book writers JF Lawton and the late Gary Marshall were going for in this new version. Composer Bryan Adams provides Vivian a few on-the-nose ballads called “This Is My Life” and “I Can’t Go Back” with the aim of giving her more agency and assertiveness (good luck). But “Pretty Woman” is practically a supermarket romance novel complete with Fabio on the cover — not a tale of female heroism. Every self-righteous onstage change is a Band-Aid.
Look — I’m all for adapting and reworking films for the stage. “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers” all did a bang-up job of it. But so many have been appallingly bad: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Ghost The Musical,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Frozen,” “Carrie” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” just to name a few. When tackling a screen property, the creative teams’ first question should be, “Why did we love this movie in the first place?” rather than “How can we fix it?”
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